At this point of the season, Orioles right-hander Chris Tillman should be showing signs of improvement.
That’s a concern.
So is the sustained velocity dip. According to mlb.com’s Gameday, Tillman threw three pitches at 92 mph – from 92.1 to 92.8 – in Tuesday’s 8-3 loss to the New York Yankees, but never eclipsed that speed. The majority of his fastballs remained in the 88 to 91 range.
Perhaps more concerning is that Tillman is not commanding his pitches consistently. He missed his spots and his four-seam and two-seam fastballs flattened out. He threw a first-pitch ball to eight of the 17 batters he faced. Too many of his offerings Tuesday were hanging in the strike zone with no real movement, and he paid for that. Dearly.
Tillman hadn’t allowed a home run in his first four starts this year; he surrendered three – all solo homers – in 2 2/3 innings Tuesday.
“Chris wasn’t very crisp and just didn’t pitch well,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “Couple in the fact that it’s a good-hitting club, (he) wasn’t very good. Goes without saying.”
Tillman doesn’t look comfortable on the mound. I’ve seen him pitch his entire MLB career, and he just looks different since his return earlier this month.
The best guess is that all of those worries can be lumped into one diagnosis: Lack of arm strength. His shoulder has bothered him since the second half of last year and he missed a chunk of the winter and all of spring training while waiting for it to feel better.
Arm strength isn’t just about velocity, it’s about crispness and movement. And that’s not there, or wasn’t Tuesday.
“I’m not big on talking (publicly) about identifying problems. I think they’re pretty obvious to everybody, including here (among media) and fans,” Showalter said. “We see the same things with some of our guys, so we’ve got to figure out why.”
Tillman says he’s pain-free now, and hopefully he is.
“I feel really good, actually. It’s been getting better every start,” Tillman said. “To be honest with you, I haven’t thought about (the shoulder) since I got back here. That’s an excuse and that’s not one I’m going to use. That’s behind me.”
He also said he doesn’t think arm strength is an issue.
“I don’t think so. I really don’t. I think it is more of an execution thing than it is arm strength,” Tillman said. “And mechanical, too. That’s an easy excuse, but when you’re off mechanically I feel like you’re out there trying to search and search and search to find the right one to make pitches and it just kind of snowballed tonight. They came out hacking and never stopped.”
We’re used to seeing Tillman carry his team until the sixth or seventh inning, even when he’s struggling with command or his velocity is wavering.
There’s no doubt Tillman’s a competitor. A battler. He wants to help his team. And, frankly, it’s a contract year, so this is doubly important for him.
But the calendar is turning to June and Tillman’s stuff is utterly hittable. He’s allowed 32 hits in 23 innings.
To me, that means his arm strength isn’t close to where it needs to be. To me, it means he should have spent more time at extended spring training before starting his rehab assignment clock. He made four rehab appearances and had a 7.16 ERA – and yet we were told that it was about health and not results.
You could buy that after he threw five shutout innings in his first Orioles’ start May 7.
But not now. In retrospect, the argument certainly can be made that Tillman wasn’t ready. That’s always a tough call – the Orioles went through the same thing with closer Zach Britton — so I’m not pointing fingers in hindsight. It’s just the reality.
And there’s not much that can be done now – assuming Tillman is healthy.
The only way to build arm strength is to pitch. He’s pitching.
It’s just not with the confidence or stuff that we’re accustomed to. This wouldn’t be a major problem if the other starters in the Orioles’ rotation were routinely doing their job, pitching deep and keeping games close; only Dylan Bundy is doing both nearly every outing.
And that makes Tillman’s struggles more disconcerting. Because likely the only thing that can fix Tillman right now is time and increased arm strength.
Until he regains the latter, you can’t expect him to consistently be the Tillman of old.